This post is a bit of a departure in that it is not just about business, productivity or leadership. It tackles a challenge we all face, whether in business, family or other relationships. And we face it over and over again throughout our lives. Maybe this season of presidential campaigning has me thinking about the carelessness with which we can hurt our friends, colleagues, spouses or neighbors. And certainly, there is a more obvious epidemic of hurt feelings now than in non-election years. But the subject is always relevant. Because of our human fallibility, we constantly hurt those around us. We do it on purpose and inadvertently, in small and big ways. Many times we know that we have damaged someone’s pride, violated a trust, dashed hopes, bruised feelings or behaved disrespectfully; someone is now less whole, confident, trusting or happy than in the moment before we struck. The need to restore relationships we have damaged is especially important for leaders.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a kind of trend in the world of apologies. They have become pro forma, and canned. I see it in the relationships of those I coach, in workplaces to which I consult and in my own life. When friends of mine hurt my feelings, I often receive an apology coupled to an explanation. “I didn’t mean it”, “I was really rushed and having a bad day”. Or, one that is so terse that I’m not even sure that they are apologizing at all: “Sorry about that yesterday. We ok?” These are not apologies, they are brush-offs. They’re intended to skate past the breach and get back on track with the least possible break in relating. No doubt, you have been on both the receiving and performing end of similar apologies. When I am on the receiving end, my response is probably not so different than yours. In general, I am not an unforgiving person, and I don’t want to extract apologies from anyone. So my response is equally as concise. “Sure, we’re cool.”
But are we really “cool”? Has the relationship truly been fully restored in these cases. Probably not. I think, often, the relationship is damaged. It isn’t that I’m angry or that I have lost a friend or colleague, but something is different. I trust them a bit less. Maybe I even love them a bit less. There is an erosion and it has a cost. I know that I’m not at all unique in this.
So I think the first question we have to ask is, should we apologize? And if we do apologize, what is the goal of an apology? Depending on who you ask, an apology can be either of two types of gestures: At the weak end of the spectrum it can simply be a perfunctory tool for restoring communication (see the example above). On the stronger end of the spectrum it can represent a significant effort to restore everything that was lost in the moment when pain was inflicted. I tend to lean to the latter.
If we consider that our networks of relationships are like a fabric woven of individual connections between us, then the strength of the fabric is only as strong as the number of un-frayed threads between individuals. When we hurt each other we fray those delicate threads, and every successive hurt further weakens the connection. As we build our communities, our businesses and even our social friendships, having strong and solid connections is critical.
So in apologizing, the goal should be to restore the frayed thread to its complete, shiny, strong condition. To do that we need to know exactly what damage we have wrought, or we can’t get to work repairing it. That may be the most difficult thing to find out, because when people feel hurt they are less likely to share and less likely to be completely honest. It’s a Catch 22: For real honesty to be possible we need a trusting relationship. But to restore trust to a relationship we need honesty. What to do?
- Own Your Total Guilt and Responsibility: I think the starting point is always with abandoning our own attachment to being right about anything in the relationship. This is harder than almost anything in life. Taking the position that I and I alone am responsible for the pain felt by another person, and that there is no excuse, explanation, justification or mitigating fact that changes that, takes courage and strength. It is a gesture of strength to say “ I was wrong, I did wrong, and I alone am responsible for it”. The beauty of making this deep, internal shift to humility and responsibility can open the communication to find out exactly what damage was done. When we face a truly contrite person, one who is taking full responsibility and feels genuine remorse, our natural inclination is toward intimacy. Those who you have hurt will also feel that pull toward intimacy as you shift into this first stage of apology. That momentary, lowering of defenses will start the healing process and also make it possible to find out what we need to know.
- Listen to Their Perspective: The second part of the process is then to listen to the consequences as experienced by whoever you hurt. Their unique expression of pain, the interpretation they added to what you did or said and the way they internalized it is the most important thing to hear and learn.
- Re-Create Their Experience: When we really listen, and can fully empathize with the effect of our actions, we can then apologize. “I am so sorry that my words made you feel…..” Fully and specifically articulating the way they tell you they feel is what the apology must convey. This “re-creation”of their expression is the step that is so often missing from our apologies. It is not easy.
- Ask for Forgiveness: The value of apologizing in this way is that once these two steps are complete trust is genuinely rebuilt. The person who was hurt has been given back something of what was lost – assurance of our genuine care, and of our understanding of specifically how we hurt them. And at that point, it is appropriate to ask for forgiveness. This process can take moments if it about a simple matter and if the participants are really authentic. Or it can take longer if the hurt is deeper and the consequences more grave.
For each of us, as we go through our daily lives, at work, on social media, in our homes – we are bound to hurt people. It is impossible to police every word and monitor every gesture without ever making a mistake. We are harried and fast to respond, often speaking without fully thinking about our words. Or we reply to posts on social media or argue over politics at the water cooler (a cardinal sin of the workplace) or inadvertently shun those we like at social settings. Given the unavoidable reality that we will all hurt someone, being able to repair those relationships is critical to our happiness, work and lives. I am hopeful that these tools will give each of us access to repairing at least one frayed thread and so strengthen an otherwise weakened connection.
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